I wrote about no platforming in UK universities (and why it sucks) for the Huffington Post

No platforming, Huffington Post

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about no platforming in UK universities because in real life, students, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you. It’s an update of an old blog post that you can read here, or the published version here

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where radical debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

It didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach.

 Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me point out that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red. In red universities, the idea of “safe space” is deemed more important than freedom of speech.

Germaine Greer has found herself falling short of safe space policy, again, as a recent petition called for her to be banned from a women’s rights lecture at Cardiff University because of her views on transgender women. It’s the latest in a string of incidents banning outspoken people with controversial views from events. In February, comedian Kate Smurthwaite also ran into trouble at Goldsmiths University when her show, Lefty Cockwomble – which, ironically, was about free speech – was cancelled. Why? Because Smurthwaite believes in the Nordic model of legislation on sex work, which criminalises buying rather than selling sex. Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, however, “‘for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”. Her show had nothing to do with prostitution.

The theory of safe space is that people of all identities and backgrounds have the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is tolerant – great. However, the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. A set of ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ rules, it’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets their community standards.

I don’t agree with Greer’s view that trans women are “not women”, and I don’t think that all opinions deserve a platform. I do believe, however, that in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in. It is there, after all, to prepare you for the world, not shield you from it.

It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts in their refusal to have their views challenged, at least. Is shying away from real debate the new radical though, or is it just a symptom of a world that seeks to shut down opinions that differ from mainstream, community approved thought?

It seems to me that building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to tolerate. Little value is placed, for instance, in the views of students that don’t match the ideal – what about their safe space? Just like Facebook, increasingly at universities you are only really expected to ‘like’, agree, or shut up. No wonder my peers preferred baking.

Censorship on campus: In real life, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you

Free speech scribble wall

Facebook-style community standards are making our universities boring. Censorship doesn’t just give students the freedom of tolerance, it prevents them from learning to tolerate.

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where controversial debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring (not you, Anna) and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

Bath spa university logoIt didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s recent Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach. More worryingly though, Bath Spa was listed as one of five universities that actively prevented it.

Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me tell you that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red.

In red universities, the idea of “safe space”, a commitment to provide a tolerant environment for students of all identities so that they are free to express who they are, is deemed more important than freedom of speech. The origins of safe space make sense – it was born out of US protests against military recruitment on campus in the 70s and the ‘no-platform’ policy against fascist groups later that decade. But the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. It’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets community standards.

Comedian Kate SmurthwaiteLast week, for example, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show, Lefty Cockwomble, was cancelled at red-ranked Goldsmiths University because her views on sex work were flagged as inappropriate. The comedian ‘likes’ the Nordic model of legislation on sex work – which criminalises buying, rather than selling, sex – while Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, according to one of the event’s organisers, “’for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”.

The society voted 70:30 in favour of letting the event go ahead. However, Smurthwaite was branded ‘whorephobic” by a few vehement opposers who threatened to picket the event anyway so the community moderators pulled the plug. Ironically, the show was about free speech and had nothing to do with prostitution, but Smurthwaite is not alone. Both Julie Bindle and Germaine Greer have found themselves unfriended by unions too, for their controversial views on trans women.

A no-platform attitude to outlandishly degrading content or sexist, homophobic or racist hate speech is understandable. Yet Goldsmiths’ view on prostitution is too radical to sensibly enforce rules that exclude non-believers – their femsoc only has 220 likes on Facebook, but the Nordic Model Advocates have a whopping 815. Besides, in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in.

Supporters of safe space argue that while debate is important, there is a place for the discussion of opposing or potentially hurtful views and that place is not, as they see it, students’ homes. Providing a platform for ideas legitimises them, and broadcasting one’s opinion is not an absolute right. It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts. However, it’s all a bit ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t teach them to tolerate.

If the recent attacks on Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted anything, it’s that we live in a diverse world where the inability to efficiently debate opposing views can have disastrous consequences. Sometimes in life, there are going to be people who don’t like you and university should help prepare us for that. I did learn one lesson in tolerance from my university, however – how not to deal with people who bore me.

Picture of the week: Corsham Court

Corsham Court

MA travel and nature writing massive do lunch – Anna, Margherita and Rachel.

For the last week, I’ve been hanging about in Bath and Corsham for my second MA residential week. I have to say, it was bloody brilliant. We met some fascinating people – author Maggie Gee, travel writer Gail Simmons, radio producer Sarah Blunt, poet Terry Gifford – and had such a great time.

Corsham Court is a privately owned Estate in Wiltshire with oodles of land and more peacocks than you can shake a camera phone at. From the outside it’s stunning, but inside the halls are full of a bizarre mix of animal skulls and art. The grounds used to be the residence of the Bath Academy of Art and there are some pretty amusing stories of what it was like in the sixties – I can’t help but wonder how many times the world was put to rights there – but now it’s used for Bath Spa postgraduates.

Our week culminated in a ‘Cafe Ecologique,’ organised by our wonderful tutor Paul Evans, which was loosely part of the literature festival. I get really nervous so I had to get quite drunk, but I did manage to read a piece, even if it was a bit shakey and slightly slurred. I chose a really short bit of non-fiction about my relationship with my body as a part of nature, however I’m not sure it went down too well with some of the older men. I definitely noticed a few side steps afterwards, so I suppose we can count that as a huge success.

Our next residential is hopefully going to be in Melaka, Malaysia. Apparently there’s a really interesting clash of cultures there: British, Chinese, Indian. The first one was at Dale Fort in Wales.

A week in Pembrokeshire

I just wanted to share a few pictures from my MA residential a few weeks ago in Pembrokeshire.

The first footprints on West Dale beach

The first footprints

I’ve just started an MA in nature and travel writing – I never thought I’d be back at Bath Spa university – and to kick start the course we spent a week at Dale Fort field studies center. It was a wonderful location, perched on the top of a rocky outcrop in deepest south Wales. We spent the days taking walks along the coast and discussing travel writers, photographers, landscape painters, ecology, ecocriticism, you name it, till late in the evenings before grabbing a cheeky red wine in the bar. It was pretty intense and there was a lot to take in, but it was one of those weeks where you come home feeling like a different person.

Dale Fort - teacher son the beach

Tutors – Paul and Joe discuss world domination

It was a bizarre place to stay – at meal times we ate sponge-based pizza and lumpy custard with rows of giggling children, tucked away in a small underground wine-cellar type room. On a couple of occasions we needed a break, when it began to get a bit too much like a trip to a 1950s boarding school we snuck off for some pub grub and a bit of respite. But on the whole it was a really great way to get to know everyone and stuck out there in the wilderness (if you’re a Londoner, Dale is pretty wild, OK) we really got our teeth stuck into things.

Common Toad (but don’t say that to his face)

The centre is surrounded by dramatic coastline, stunning beaches and we were lucky with the weather – the rain even cleared up for twenty or thirty whole seconds over the course of the week. I’ve written a piece about the experience, and just as soon as I find out that is hasn’t won the Guardian travel writing competition, I’ll post it up here.

(My computer has become too old to run PhotoShop, so the photo’s haven’t been straightened or tidied up. Sorry about that)

West Dale Beach

West Dale Beach – my favourite

Birds in stormy sky

bath spa travel writers

We all listen very carefully to Paul

Beauty and the beast

Dale castle, the village and more cows

Dale castle, the village and cows (that’s my class being intelligent in the distance)

sea and sky

Anna Is Eating on West Dale beach (not eating)